Fraudsters are always ready to make a quick buck, even if it means defrauding the people who serve their nation in the armed services. According to a 2019 analysis by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), active-duty personnel suffered a median loss of $775 from fraud in the four years ending in 2019, higher than that borne by civilians. Veterans and retirees were even more vulnerable, losing a median amount of $950 from fraud during that period.
Scams targeting military service members take a variety of forms, from phishing operations to deceptive financial services. Experts say it’s important to avoid people or groups urging you to divulge sensitive information, pressuring you to make quick financial decisions, or asking you to send money in untraditional ways.
Here are some of the most common efforts to defraud those who wear the uniform.
- Red flags that you are being scammed include requests for sensitive information from people you’ve never met and sudden demands that you send money in a short time frame.
- Among the more common ploys used against service members are phishing scams from individuals claiming to represent a real-life military organization.
- Romance scams target personnel who are looking for a relationship; the perpetrator typically uses a dating app to assume a fake identity and eventually asks for money.
DFAS Phishing Emails
In one recurring scam, the perpetrators contact a service member or their spouse pretending to be from the U.S. Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) or some other military-related organization. They tell the targeted individual that their personal information was somehow lost and that they need to provide it to receive future paychecks.
The DFAS hoax is a reminder that military personnel should never provide personal or financial information over the phone or click on links from unverified sources. Legitimate military organizations won’t ask for those things, so getting such requests should immediately raise a red flag.
CID Phishing Schemes
In another all-too-common phishing scheme, fraudsters pretend that they belong to the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). The schemers then tell the service member that they’ve done business with a company involved in fraudulent activity and ask for sensitive financial information as part of an inquiry.
For someone serving in the armed forces, being contacted by a military investigative body might seem plausible. Nevertheless, communicating electronically with anyone whose identity is not easily verifiable is risky.
Rental Property Scams
Some scammers are willing to prey on service members who need to find housing close to a military base, often in a short time frame. The perpetrator may identify themselves as a real estate agent who can help them find that perfect property.
Instead, they fraudulently collect a deposit or other fees up front, then leave the victim with no place to live. That’s why it’s imperative to always visit the property in person before sending in payment for a unit that may not be real.
Taking on a fraudulent identity is one of the more common ways for criminals to take advantage of military personnel, particularly veterans. Another is the free-services ploy.
In one iteration, the individual will contact a former service member and collect a fee for providing information on services that should be free, such as benefits documents or their personnel record. If the services are not free, they take the money without providing any help to the veteran. If someone’s asking for money over the phone or through email, be on high alert; it’s better to contact those organizations directly.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) runs the Aid and Attendance (A&A) program, which provides larger pension benefits to former military members with limited means who live in nursing homes, are confided to their bed, or need help with basic tasks such as eating and bathing.
Unfortunately, unscrupulous lawyers and financial advisors sometimes try to cold-call veterans and convince them that they can qualify by making it look like they have fewer assets than they actually have. For example, they may suggest that you create a trust that moves part of your nest egg to a family member.
While applying for A&A can be lucrative for the scammer, it can prove disastrous for the former service member whom they target. The victim often ends up being disqualified for the extra benefits once their financial records are screened by the VA. Those who do successfully get into A&A are sometimes shocked to find that they’re no longer qualified for Medicaid and other government benefits.
After their time in the service, a lot of veterans are looking for ways to further their education and develop the credentials that they’ll need for the next phase of their career. However, in multiple high-profile cases, education providers have deliberately misled former members of the armed services to lure them in.
According to the FTC, the for-profit University of Phoenix targeted military personnel with ads that touted their connection to employers such as Adobe and Microsoft—special relationships that did not, in fact, exist. The university ultimately settled its case with the FTC, not admitting wrongdoing but agreeing to pay former students $50 million in cash and canceling $141 million in outstanding fees.
In another instance, Career Education Corp. was forced to pay its students $30 million after it was found that the organization used fake government-sounding websites, such as Army.com and NavyEnlist.com, to attract students. You should always independently verify claims made in ads, although the troubled history of for-profit universities may warrant added scrutiny.
One particularly malicious con exploits people in uniform, often serving far from home, who are looking for a romantic connection. The perpetrator creates an appealing profile on a dating app and uses the platform to establish a relationship with the service member.
Eventually, the imposter will ask for electronic funds that they can use to make a visit or tend to an emergency back home. Once the money’s sent, these same individuals will disappear.
Given the popularity of dating apps, members of the military should be cautious about sending funds to anyone they haven’t met. It’s also a good idea to cross-check the profile picture of a possible romantic partner against other images on the Internet. With Google, you can press and hold any picture on a website and then tap “Search Google for image.” If you find that the picture shows up with a different name, you should proceed with extreme caution.
The Bottom Line
Members of the various armed service branches may put themselves on the line for their country, but that doesn’t mean that they’re safe from unscrupulous actors. To avoid getting hooked, beware of people who contact you out of the blue by email or phone claiming to be someone who can help you. In addition, never provide sensitive personal or financial information—and by all means, never send money—to anyone whose identity you can’t verify.